There’s No Going Backwards
I’ve been driving around town in a borrowed baby blue minivan since last Thursday. I’m actually kind of enjoying it, but that’s beside the point. The reason I’m driving the minivan, and not my small Japanese sedan, is that mine is having its transmission rebuilt for the second time since July. The first time I brought the car to the transmission shop, the manager practically laughed at me. Apparently, this lovely Japanese transmission “never” breaks, especially not at the age and mileage of mine. Of course, mine was actually quite broken, and a few thousand dollars later it was good as new. Hey, everybody gets unlucky sometimes.
Last week, it started acting up again. I discovered the problem just as I had last time- I was trying to pull out of a parking space when, suddenly, I couldn’t get the car to move in reverse. I slipped and bucked my way out of the space, found the drive gear working normally, and drove home knowing that the transmission shop was about to get another call. One freak transmission problem in an unbreakable car is a coincidence; but the second one? I began to wonder why I was cursed.
As I ran errands and drove to work the next day, I had to meticulously plan each move so that I could maneuver into a parking space and get out of it again by only moving forward. Watching me circle the block looking for the perfect parallel parking spot would have been comical (it was moreso frustrating to me). I never realized how much I counted on being able to back out. And maybe that was the lesson in all this.
In life, we don’t get to back out of the tight spaces. I’ve had to start over a lot of times in my life, but it only worked when I decided to focus on doing something else, not undoing what I’d already done. When I switched into a difficult science major my junior year of college, I had to take freshman-level courses to get up to speed. I couldn’t believe I had to work my way through a major all over again, and wondered if I’d be able to graduate without some hugely expensive extra semesters. But as the semester began, I realized that freshman coursework didn’t mean I had to go back to being a freshman myself. I couldn’t get back those two years I spent in other programs, so I took the best lessons in how to study, how to work the course registration system, and how to view professors as real humans instead of automatons that I’d learned in those years and applied them to my new major. I was able to graduate on time, thanks to those skills and to my friends who kept me sane (ahem-Tom-ahem).
Nowadays, I am an educator as well as a student, and the same principle is cropping up again. Giving one instruction in a confusing way, or forgetting to emphasize strongly enough that something is a quiet, individual activity, can cause a class to devolve into chaos. You can’t get back from that, or at least, I am too new to teaching to know how. So I learn from my mistakes and give clearer instructions or stricter rules the next time. I’m embarrassed to think of some of the mistakes I’ve made, but they’re just part of the process. Every veteran teacher has told me that’s how you learn. Being perfect doesn’t get you very far (assuming you aren’t Mary or Jesus).
In the spiritual realm, you can’t go backwards any more than you can in everyday life, or in my broken car. I still remember the shame of being caught in a lie over a stuffed animal when I was six or seven years old. I got in a lot of trouble, and I felt terrible, and I just knew that now I had done something really bad and I would never be the same again. (Only with a child’s limited memory and simplistic understanding of sin could I have imagined that this was the first real sin I’d committed.) I was right. But not too long after that, in preparation for our first communion, my classmates and I got our first experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Then and now, the confessional is that place where I can get through what I can’t undo. Last week, as I made my way carefully to the transmission shop without any chance to back up, I realized the beauty of that opportunity to move on from the situations we get stuck in sometimes. So on Sunday, I clambered into the borrowed minivan and drove to church early for the opportunity to make a full confession for the first time in months. I finished my penance, the liturgy began, and I was finally moving forward again.